Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Captain John: When in Doubt... Anchor Out!

Captain John recalls a little trip he once took up the coast...

Guest blog by Captain John
Captain John Jamieson, a regular contributor to the Daily Boater, is author of Seamanship Secrets and publisher of the popular boating education website

Hurricane Hugo on September 21, 1989. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

A weary crew aboard the 135' Coast Guard ship tied up to the pier in St. Pete, Florida, late one September afternoon. It'd been a hell of a long trip, working aids to navigation from Tampa Bay around the Straits of Florida to Miami. After securing our little buoy tender, we shuffled down the gangway and made our way home…

And then the phones started ringing. I could tell by the sound of the ring-tone it was going to be bad.

Recall! Recall! Pack your stuff again – you’re underway in 2 hours! They need your help to the North

South Carolina had called. 

They’d just received a visit from a nasty guy named Hugo. This hell-raiser left death, destruction and devastation in his wake. And tenders were being called for help. Could we handle it?  You betcha! Midnight - “Underway as before” read the log entry. 

It was a two day transit to Charleston. Since I had experience as a search and rescue coxswain in Charleston in my younger days, the skipper asked me to take her in. Our estimated time of arrival at the sea buoy was around 1am. It was going to be dicey going in…

I posted double lookouts on bow and flying bridge and watched the radar closely. Never had I seen such blackness. No lights, dead calm, the sky overcast. The blackest night I can ever recall. And the radar!  I held the chart next to the scope and glanced from chart to scope and back. Nothing made sense!

The land profile was all wrong. Something wasn’t right. None of the buoys were showing up on the radar. No blips where they should be blipping. "All Stop!"

I held my position just outside the jetties and called the Captain. We both scanned the horizon with binoculars and checked the scope on all scales. Nothing…

Only one decision made sense - anchor and wait until morning. And that’s just what we did. We moved out of the “channel” - at least what used to be a channel – and dropped our hook. And when the sun rose that morning, we saw a sight I never want to see again…

Utter devastation. Astronomically high tides covered most of the jetties. Buoys lay atop the remaining jetty stones like beached whales. We weighed anchor and cautiously picked our way through the chaos of debris. More buoys had been tossed onto the beach like seashells. Only a handful of navigation aids still maintained their original positions. 

And so it was with the city. Complete loss of power. Yachts in the middle of highways. Unbelievable. For the next few weeks, buoy-tenders from all over the mid-Atlantic worked sunup to sundown - repairing, replacing and re-positioning every aid to navigation in Charleston harbor, its tributaries and the Intracoastal Waterway...

Early October. “Underway as before” - read our log entry. Looking astern that beautiful fall evening, my heart leaped for joy. From horizon to horizon, every light was brightly lit in both city and harbor. The courageous people of Charleston had rallied and won. And we were mighty glad to have been a part of it!


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